“The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step” - Lao Tzu
It’s true. It the most literal sense, one cannot achieve a goal, or complete a journey, without taking a step towards the goal. No matter how trivial a task may seem, this quote is meant to bring perspective that even the most inconsequential of actions is needed to complete a journey...a single step.
Where this quote leaves much to be desired, however, is the scope of the journey. Not every side journey is “1000 miles”. Some goals are, figuratively, only feet away. Others may seem so distant that a single step would be insignificant. Regardless, the second step, and the third and forth and so on could not occur without that first step.
Life, and all of the emotions that come with being human, is in and of itself the "1000 mile" journey. We’re born, we grow, we love, lose, and pay taxes. We die. Our first steps are leaving our mother’s womb. We don’t remember it. We cannot recall what WE felt as that first step was taken, but just the same, we know that it was indeed taken. Every one of our journeys began, crying and naked, with our first step, and our first loss. That loss being the physical attachment to our mothers when the umbilical cord is severed. From there on, our journey into the afterlife is filled with side treks. It’s filled with explorations, and steps in different directions. Just as in the physical world, these metaphorical paths may cause us to turn around and retrace our steps, or feel lost. We may decide that we wish to return to our central path, foreseeing that the side trail is not going to lead anywhere.
Or, we can continue down these paths, not looking back. The only way to find some vistas is to wander. We may may begin our wanderings with new hobbies, friends, or romantic partners. We might decide to relocate, or to stay on the safe path. Regardless, a step has to be taken at each junction.
Our 1000 mile journey not only begins with a single step. It is completed with a single step as well, and millions of steps in between. It’s filled with stumbles, dead-ends, and rocky portions. It’s punctuated by long, uphill slogs through mud, and gentle descents, where it feels as if we’re on wheels.
Partners join us for portions of our walk, sometimes guiding us to take different paths, sometimes, deciding that they want to return to their own path. There are times that our traveling companion may reach the end of their own journey as they walked beside us, taking their own final steps. We may choose to then turn around, returning to the path we were on before they joined us. We may choose to stop and rest, hoping to take another single step when we are ready. We may decide that continuing on, taking another step forward is ultimately the correct decision.
Why am I waxing philosophical about this quote? Why am I “vagueifying” my writing this week? Well, because I am an avid hiker. Many of my journeys have begun quite literally with a single step. It is a beautiful metaphor to me because of this, and no gritty detail needs to be given in order to apply to many people. My “1000 mile journey” is my life. There really is no “end destination” other than my own mortality itself. The important part to me, is walking 1000 miles before I get there.
Were I looking for the most efficient way to die then, I would simply walk in circles for whatever remains of my thousand miles, take a final step, keel over, and become dust. It would be grand. I could just put blinders on, find the safest patch of ground, and walk with two left feet until I die. There would be no need to look back on my past, because I wouldn’t need to know where I’ve been...I couldn’t get lost. There would be no need to look ahead towards any new paths of opportunity, because I would never reach them, walking in circles as I am. I would cover 1000 miles pretty quickly, but really, I would only be a few yards from where the first steps were taken.
I will not walk in circles. I’ve taken dozens of side paths, and I will take dozens more. I turned off of the safe path 19 years ago this month, and became a Marine. Nearing the end of that 6 year path, I began travelling with Megan, for a long time. We took a turn, a side path together, having a beautiful daughter together in Shelby. She began to walk along with us. Megan took her final step a few years ago, and Shelby and I branched off together, not knowing where we were actually headed. Along the way, Sarah’s path crossed with ours, and the three of us have decided to take steps together. Somewhere, Shelby will grow tired of continuing on with us, and she too will branch off on her own.
Each of us may stumble periodically. Our paces may slow, independent of each other’s gait. The key, both in this metaphor, and when literally hiking, is to keep moving. Keep taking steps towards reaching 1000 miles. Don’t walk in circles, and don’t take breaks too frequently. Take a step. Take another. Then another. Make a turn off of the main path if it interests you. Glance over your shoulder, to know where you’ve come from, but keep moving forward. As were were trained in the Marine Corps, "trust your compass".
For a long time, at least the last three or four years, I’ve been on that long, uphill slog through the mud. I’ve looked back far too often, wanting to simply turn around and curse the hill as I descended backwards down the path. It would be far too easy to return from whence I came, forgetting that the next vista along my path may take some more uphill, some more mud, and some more steps before reaching the summit. I’ve got Shelby and Sarah, further ahead and above me, encouraging me on. Sarah is better conditioned to this kind of walking. She’s had more, and longer uphill stretches than I. Shelby? Well, Shelby is on fresh, childhood legs. She’s simply not tired or carrying as much weight...she’s just excited to get to the top and see what’s on the other side. The bridge that Megan and I crossed so long ago is out. I cannot return to the safe path.
A few days ago, I had to make a decision. I could give up, turn around and go back to the bottom of the hill, where I last saw Megan, and walk in circles. I could stop and take a rest, content with how far I had already climbed, hoping that my walking companions didn’t climb too far from me. Or, I could push to the top, knowing that the vista I will reach will quite possibly be one of the most breathtaking I’ve seen on my journey so far.
So, I’m taking a single step. Uphill. Then another. I can use this climb to better myself. Each and every step brings me closer to my goal, and the harder that step is, the easier it makes the next. I will become more resilient, better conditioned for climbs, and I will appreciate the reaching the summit that much more. Reaching one summit, in general, means you can see the next much more clearly.
No matter how tough, steep, or impassable the next portion of the journey may look...it all begins with a single step.